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New Jersey's Bare-Minimum Budgets

In dozens of districts across New Jersey, local residents can't cut their tax levy -- even if they want to.

For all the debate in New Jersey about when and how the public votes on school budgets, there are dozens of districts in a given year where the public can't cut the local tax levies.

Sixty-five districts -- urban and suburban -- are at the minimum property tax levy allowed by state law for this year. This amount is determined by a complicated formula in the School Funding Reform Act that weighs the minimum a district needs to spend and its ability to pay for it through per capita income and property wealth, among other factors.

This means that even if the voters in these districts reject the proposed budgets, the municipal council can't cut the school levy. In a handful of them, the budget task is left to appointed Boards of School Estimate or county freeholders, who are bound by the same rules.

The topic has come up from those wondering about the value of the budget votes that now take place statewide in April. A bill to allow districts to move the elections to November and only vote on budgets above the 2 percent tax cap passed a Senate committee yesterday and looks headed for final vote this session.

"It punctuates a piece of the absurdity of why districts vote on budgets," said John Donahue, executive director of the School Business Officials who first raised the matter at an Assembly hearing last week.

"It's significant in not only a wasting money, but wasting people's time to even come out and vote" he said.

Some districts the list are predictable, among the poorest in the state, places like Camden and Irvington. But others fit a more middle class mold: Palisades Park, Englewood, and Hamilton.

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